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SpaceX maiden launch of Dragon space capsule delayed [Updated]

December 6, 2010 | 12:19 pm


Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the Hawthorne-based rocket venture better known as SpaceX, announced Monday that the first attempt to launch the Dragon space capsule had been bumped back due to cracking in a second-stage engine nozzle.

The privately owned company will now aim for Thursday for the maiden launch of the spacecraft, which is designed to carry cargo and crew for NASA. The launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., had been slated for Tuesday.

“We found some indications on second-stage nozzle that we're spending some time investigating," said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, during a press conference that was webcast on NASA’s website.

Shotwell added that if the nozzle had to be replaced, the company would aim for a Friday launch. SpaceX has a launch window that will remain open until Saturday.

It is a key launch for the company, which employs more than 1,100 people, most of whom are in California. The reusable Dragon capsule is considered a contender for the job of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station after the space-shuttle program is mothballed in 2011.

In the test launch, the capsule will be affixed to SpaceX’s massive Falcon 9 rocket, which made its first flight in June from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The capsule is expected to orbit the Earth, reenter the atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean.

This will be the first attempt by a commercial company to recover a spacecraft reentering from low-Earth orbit. Aside from the U.S., only five nations or governmental agencies have tried: Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Space Agency.

SpaceX makes the capsule and rocket at a sprawling facility in Hawthorne that once housed the fuselage assembly for Boeing Co.'s 747 jumbo jet.

[Updated Monday, 6:15 p.m.: Despite saying several times during Monday's press conference that a launch will take place no earlier than Thursday, SpaceX issued a statement late Monday that said, "A decision on whether or not to attempt launch on Wednesday will be provided tomorrow evening."]


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-- W.J. Hennigan

Photo: artist's rendering of the Dragon space capsule and the second stage of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Credit: NASA